Sea Drift Fish

Thirty Years in Pacific Groundfish

This year, David Ernst is celebrating an important milestone in his life. Sea Drift Fish, the company he started back in October of 1979, is turning 30 years old. As President and Owner of Sea Drift, Ernst remembers a time when they only had one location in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

“After a few years in the first store, Sea Drift started incorporating a bit of processing at the back of the store,” Ernst recalls. “It was so successful that we were getting too busy to stay in one location. We decided to lease a second space on the waterfront in the mid-1980s, where we stayed for three years before we got our own property. We bought an acre and started to build our processing facility. That was in 1988. We’ve been in the same building ever since—we have added on to it  four times to bring our facility to 12,000 square feet since we’ve been here.” With two retail stores and one processing plant, Sea Drift Fish now has about 50 people working there.

For the most part, Sea Drift processes groundfish—species of fish that live on or near the bottom of a body of water. The types of fish consist of 50 different species of rock fish, cod and sole and they are made primarily into the fillet form. Priding itself on the quality and freshness of its product, Sea Drift receives two deliveries from independent fishers per week. Ernst explains that boats go out for three to four days and land on Sundays and Wednesdays. The company processes the fish and ships on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, ensuring their product is fresh for all markets. Sea Drift’s fish can be found all along the Pacific coast in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angles, San Diego and even in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. They sell it to distributors; those distributors then sell to grocery stores and restaurants.

Like any company that manufactures food, Sea Drift Fish also has to be certain of their products’ safety. That’s why the plant is a federally registered facility for processing. “We work under the Fish Inspection Regulations from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA),” Ernst maintains. “In addition, we developed our own HACCP plan, which contains all of our standards of operation. We get two audits a year from the CFIA to make sure we’re operating in compliance with our HACCP.”

As a family-owned business, Sea Drift has a very hands-on management team. In fact, their willingness to get involved with day-to-day processes is a part of what makes the company successful—at least that is what Ernst believes. After 30 years, he also says that perseverance is a significant contributing factor in the company’s achievements. “It’s a number of things,” he continues. “It’s our great staff, our steady supply of fish and the fact that we’re in a good industry.”

Industry background
Groundfish is indeed a noteworthy industry, especially when you consider their commitment to sustainability. In 1994 the federal fisheries introduced an Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) program to monitor and manage the amount of groundfish being caught in British Columbia. “Each vessel has been given a quota to last the year,” says Ernst. “They can harvest whenever they want and in any amount, until they reach their quota. The IVQ is the biggest industry change in how we do business.” With this program you can build your business plan to have a consistent supply year around, to achieve the best economical value from the resource.
Federal fisheries have also implemented a monitoring program, whereby fishers are required to take an observer with them to sea when they go fishing. The observers are there to monitor the boats, fishing practices, locations, and depths to maintain sustainability in the industry and plan for the future.

The Canadian trawl fishery is the only fishery in the world that has100 per cent observer coverage on the boat’s while fishing at sea, beams Ernst. “Even when the fishers come back, all of their fish are validated at the dock to maintain their IVQ and prepare for their next trip with remaining quota before coming to us at the processing facility. Monitoring ensures we have a year-round product for our customers; we’re consistent that way.”

The next stakeholder in the industry is the Groundfish Development Authority (GFA), a group responsible for ensuring that British Columbia’s coastal communities benefit from the West Coast groundfish trawl industry. They are also invested in sustainability. One of their main platforms is keeping everything local to support the regional industry.

If boats don’t dock in B.C. to fuel up or unload or buy supplies, the coastal community jobs will suffer. “In terms of processing, it used to be that a lot of fishers would export to the U.S.,” says Ernst. “The GDA and its criteria encourage fishers to keep our fish in the country. I think that’s great for the long-term business in Canada.”

Finally, don’t forget about the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, which is made up with industry leaders, fishers, and governments who are responsible for showing Canadian sustainability through scientific research and survey programs.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” Ernst continues. “There are only about seven or eight major processors of groundfish in B.C., and Sea Drift is actually one of two processors on the island—the rest are shipped to Vancouver for processing. We want to keep business in the region.” 

Other fish in the sea
Looking ahead, Ernst says his long-term goals are maintenance of the business. “I don’t think we’re going to grow the company anymore,” says Ernst. “We’re just going to keep it as is now.”

Maintenance doesn’t mean doing nothing. Sea Drift Fish has plenty of things on the go. Take their involvement in the hake fishery, for example. Every summer, the company gets this type groundfish from a volume fishery, whereby they freeze the product and export it to Eastern European countries and Asia. The whole reason Sea Drift made the expansions on the processing plant over the years was because they got into the hake fishery.

“My goals have been met,” Ernst smiles. “I’m happy with where I’m at, so now we’ll maintain it. What we will probably be doing from this point onward is looking at added-value to our products, like packaging.” But first things first, Sea Drift Fish has a birthday to plan in October!